08 May 2018
Read James McCreet's expert advice on writing a short story in a week
1. Work to a length
The beauty of a short story is that it’s often defined by its parameters – some might say by its limitations. Knowing (and sticking to) the word count allows you to conceive the structure and develop the growth, the pace, the shape of the story. Four hundred words is a very different proposition to 3000. This is also excellent practice for writing novels because it allows you to conceptualise scenes and chapters.
2. Set (another) time limit
Depending on the length you’re aiming at, give yourself a set amount of time to crank out a workable first draft. Sometimes, the urgency of your writing comes through in the pace: a sense of momentum or pressure. If you’ve given yourself the whole seven days, establish what you want to achieve on each day towards the final goal. This makes the process less one of increasingly frantic drafts and more one of tranquil progress I once wrote a very short story in the time it took to boil some rice. It won me a holiday in Brazil.
3. What’s the peg?
Decide before you start where you see the core of your story. From what does your story hang? Is it in the tone? In the structure? In the theme? Or perhaps it’s a combination of these. It may be tempting to just start writing and see where the story goes. Many people write this way, though it’s a classic example of writing as a reader rather than as a writer. The reader may not know where the story is headed or how the concept will develop, but the writer must know!
4. Ditch the warm-up
Many unsuccessful short stories begin with half a page of preparatory throat-clearing. This is evidence of the writer feeling their way into the story via a bit of description or pre-emptive exposition. It’s an unwitting signal that the writer has begun with insufficient confidence or direction. One way around this (apart from better planning or multiple drafts) is to decisively cut the first few paragraphs. Very often, the ‘real’ start of the story is about 200 words in.
5. Research your audience
It’s cynical, I know, but stories written for competitions need to be tactical. It’s no different when pitching a novel to an agent. Have a look who the judges are and assess what kind of writing they might favour. Look at stories by past winners. My holiday-winning story was judged by a literary author, so I threw in a few literary techniques in terms of style and narrative perspective – the kind of things I thought might catch his attention.
6. Hook early, reel at leisure
This touches on number four and may appear to be grandma-suck-eggs obvious, but it’s even more critical than you might think. I was once a judge on a national short-story-writing competition and I was surprised (guilty?) by just how rapidly I was able to reject many submissions entirely within the first ten lines or so. Typos and bad grammar are self-sabotage of the worst kind, but a rambling or vague or clichéd opening – especially when judged against hundreds of other stories – is a sure-fire coffin nail. However many drafts you do, make sure your first page is the last thing you work on and the most perfectly polished (without seeming so).
7. Ignore the other six rules (a bit)
Some of the greatest short stories are by writers who did their own thing. They wrote in their own way, to their own schedule and without regard to the critics. Personal freedom is critical in artistic expression. However, professionalism is also about getting the job done in the given time. Some might consider seven days too generous a period to produce a story; others might quake at the challenge. Following all of these rules, you really shouldn’t have a problem.